North America, United States, California, Yosemite Valley, North Wall of Sentinel Rock

Publication Year: 1951.

North Wall of Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Valley. The lure of the N. face of Sentinel began to be felt in 1936, when Morgan Harris, William Horsfall and Olive Dyer made a reconnaissance of the lower cliffs, hoping to find a route up the face. They ascended over easy fourth-class ledges to a sandy, tree-studded ledge 1500 ft. above the valley floor. This ledge, known as the Tree Ledge, lay at the foot of the N. wall itself, though still 1500 ft. below its summit. Here one could look up and barely catch sight of the small tree growing on top of the buttress that reaches up 800 ft. onto the wall. Beyond? No one could tell: this was one of the great mysteries stirring the ambitions of many climbers.

There was some activity on the wall in the Forties. Robin Hansen, Jack Arnold and Fritz Lippmann made several attempts and eventually reached a point some 150 ft. above the Tree Ledge. In the fall of 1948 Jim Wilson and Phil Bettler climbed another 100 ft. higher. In October 1949 a party (Wilson, Bettler, Bill Long and I) arrived at the Tree Ledge prepared to make the first bivouac on the face. We made about 450 ft. in over 20 hours’ continuous climbing. The greatest difficulty during this attempt was the lack of a suitable ledge for a bivouac: the night was passed on a tilted chockstone— crowded with two people, more so with four!

Spring finally came, and May 1950 saw the successful ascent of the buttress. Long and Bettler, in a two-day ascent, reached the top and had the first look at the great chimney, a dark cleft that led the rest of the way to the summit. Their report was anything but encouraging. The chimney was inaccessible; it was fully 100 ft. to the left, with nothing but bare granite between. The only possible way was to go straight up, with bolts, and hope to enter the chimney higher up.

John Salathe and I climbed to the Tree Ledge on 30 June 1950, ready for another long siege. We carried 15 karabiners, about ten horizontal pitons, eight angle pitons and twelve expansion bolts plus hangers; we had also a 300-ft. rappel rope, a 120-ft. climbing rope and a 120-ft. hauling line (¼-in.) for the packs, which contained a little dried fruit and canned tuna. On top of all this, we hauled two gallons of water up the cliff.

Two days brought us over familiar ledges to the small cairn on the buttress: 800 ft., 14 leads (all partly sixth-class), over 80 pitons. Hard climbing, those two days. At one point, I felt quite ill and almost had to give up the climb; but a little water restored my strength, and we continued.

Late on the second day, Salathe started trying to get as high as possible above the buttress before dark. At the rate of four ft. an hour, he made 25 ft., using several pitons and bolts. There were a few cracks, some good and some—well, not so good. One piton turned 30 degrees with his weight on it, but he quickly shifted his position and averted a fall.

Early the next morning he was at it again, and in seven hours he was up and over the steep part. I prussiked up, and we discussed the next few leads. By this time the sun had come from behind the wall and was shining directly on our backs. Down in the valley temperatures up to 105° were recorded, and there was little wind to counteract the heat. We craved water, but had to be satisfied with an occasional sip. We knew that our water would not last long.

Using a tension traverse, we were able to climb into the chimney. But once inside we knew our troubles were really beginning. For a good 130 ft. the chimney was vertical, if not overhanging a bit. Toward the top of this stretch the walls came together and prohibited climbing on the inside—and there appeared to be no route on the outside. Here was the crux of the climb. To be frank, I may say that I was figuring out how we could rappel back over the route we had made and still make the horizontal distance back to the top of the buttress.

But we made our try and came through. I managed to scramble into an inner chamber of the chimney and thus gain a ledge directly below the narrow part. John, being too hefty to squeeze into the chamber, prussiked up to my stance outside the chimney. Taking the lead, he placed two pitons and then leaned out almost horizontally, trying to reach around the corner. I saw the piton slip a little—and then hold. It held until he had reached around the edge and placed another in a small crack that eventually led up to a small ledge on the face. John yodelled happily, and I followed up. Although we did not know it at the time, the climb was ours. This particular stretch had looked impossible from below. A bit of luck led us to the right combination.

From this point on, it was an endurance test. Our water was low, and the sun was fiercely hot. We had long since ceased to sweat. I can remember many a time when I tried to call John, but could not because of my intense thirst. Down in the valley, painfully visible, was the cool Merced River! We longed for the land of beer counters and drinking faucets; we longed for a little damp moss to suck, or a root to chew—anything that was green or damp.

We were forced to spend another night on the face. Our third had been in the great chimney—practically a standing bivouac. This, our fourth night, we spent in an even less desirable place; but we had no choice.

On the morning of the fifth day we stood upon the summit. The climb had lasted four days and five hours. The 1500 ft. had required 25 leads, nine bolts and over 150 pitons. The last lead was an anticlimax: a fourth-class scramble, the only one of its degree on the entire wall. Our joy on reaching the summit was short-lived: the ordeal was not to be finished until we had run down the mountainside and collapsed, fully clothed, in the little stream that rushes contentedly down the gully to the E. of Sentinel Rock.

The ascent was as successful as anyone could hope, and perhaps as singular. Sometimes it seems odd that such torment of the body should afford such satisfaction. John told me once on the climb that he was going to give up this sort of thing and take up back-country hiking. Just recently I heard that he was on the first ascent of Sugar- loaf Dome in Little Yosemite Valley. A good deal of sixth-class climbing there, with a bivouac thrown in for pleasure…

Allen Steck